Hello again. Long time no see. I’ve had phone troubles again but now they are sorted I can hopefully get blogging again. In the meantime, today is my birthday. Thank you, you’re very kind. What, the card’s in the post? That’s fine…. You see, not all birthdays are the same. There are good birthdays and there are bad birthdays, and I have had a few of both along the way. 1992 was a good one, a house party where I carefully selected a soundtrack according to the differing groups who would be attending during the duration. Party anthems and Motown for a few hours when the ‘oldies’ were around, then once it was down to just my friends in attendance it turned into Field Mice, Durutti Column and Dinosaur Jnr and frankly by then everyone was so drunk I could have played “L.A. Blues” by the Stooges and they would have danced along to it. Two years later was a bad one, my first in my new house, waiting in all day for a shed to be delivered (of course it came at half past four), seeing nobody and barely speaking a word all day. There have been parties and celebrations, some more bittersweet than others, one in particular almost a farewell… And there has been music. Usually i will either treat myself to some new records or I will be bought records. On my birthday last year I wrote about records I had received as presents during the eighties, this time I am looking at one year where I had a huge blowout of record buying.
It’s worth explaining the background of why I had such a blowout at the time. Throughout the spring of 1991 I was studying at the Poly of Wales in Treforrest, commuting by train from Penarth. I didn’t have a lot of money spare, and any spare cash I did have was spent on Sarah Records. The advantage of them issuing singles over albums meant I could afford one or two singles every week or so and by the end of May I was up to date with all their single releases, but I hadn’t bought any albums since …oh… “Make it loud” in January (as I knowingly ignore one of the albums I will be writing about here, but we’ll get to that soon enough). So by the time of my birthday I had a stackload of records I wanted to buy. Now this is where my memory fails me slightly, because I was under the impression I bought all these records on my birthday (which was a Friday) but looking at the release date of one of the records it came out on the Tuesday after (Monday being Whitsun Bank Holiday). These records all remind me of my birthday, but it seems I bought them a few days later. Do you care about historical accuracy? Nah…. But what the hell, I bought all these records with my birthday money so they all remind me of my birthday even if I didn’t actually buy them on my birthday…
Anyway, let’s crack on and have a listen to some music. The sun is shining, the sky is blue and there may be a nice cool bottle of Bud somewhere (it was around this time I discovered Budweiser, a beer I actually liked to drink).
Spirea X – “Chlorine Dream” CD EP / “Speed Reaction” CD EP
Ah yes, poor old Spirea X. Where to begin? Well how about the start? Spirea X were formed by Jim Beattie alongside his partner Judith Boyle once Beattie had left Primal Scream around 1988. It was Beattie’s twelve string Rickenbacker all over classics like “Velocity Girl” and “It happens” and the whole “Sonic Flower Groove” album. Why did he leave? Did he jump or was he pushed? Did he not want to wear the leather trousers? Did he argue with Bobby G about the merits of the MC5? Anyway, he lay low for a few years, licked his wounds and watched Primal Scream become successful, even being touted as leaders of a future indie dance crossover. Spirea X was his attempt to right some wrongs, to reclaim what was rightfully his, to show he could do it too, and with a twelve string Rickenbacker still at the forefront of the sound. The band signed to 4AD (apparently Alan McGee was slightly annoyed that Beattie hadn’t gone to Creation first) and issued two singles in quick succession, speaking in the music press about their classic roots and their plans to issue three singles in different styles before their album.
The first I had heard of Spirea X was seeing them perform “Chlorine Dream” on the wonderful BBC2 show “Snub TV”. Can I briefly say what a wonderful show “Snub TV” was? It documented a great period of music, championed a lot of great bands and was like a televisual version of the On pages of NME. (“Rapido” was good too, in case you were thinking I had forgotten it). I wish there was some kind of equivalent of the show now. But Spirea X were there, looking cool, sounding cool too. I added their name to my mental list of records to buy, the title tracks of both EPs were played on the radio and sounded good. I waited for the time I had money to buy them.
“Chlorine Dream” is about Brian Jones apparently. You’d never notice. A twelve string guitar provides an opening riff then woosh a baggy rhythm section blast through the song. There’s dreamy boy girl harmonies and er that’s about it. Once you’ve heard the opening minute you’ve heard it all. It sounds oddly without dynamics, like it is built up from a series of loops (which is of course entirely possible). A fair enough song to introduce yourself with. The b-sides are pants though. “Spirea Rising” is a semi instrumental which is based on the one minute instrumental song “Spirea X” which appeared on the “Velocity Girl” twelve inch, but it lumbers along unattractively. “Risk” is a drum machine, an annoying keyboard riff and someone intoning “X” from time to time. Pointless.
Luckily the “Speed Reaction” EP was far better. Instead of taking their cues from the Soup Dragons they decide to mix the Byrds with the Mamas and Papas (so that would be the Peanut Butter Conspiracy then…). “Speed Reaction” and “Jet Pilot” are both bright breezy guitar pop gems, chiming guitars, lovely harmonies, perfect early 90s indie pop songs then. “What kind of love” is slower, a groove based song with gospel organ and vocals while “Re:Action” is a remix of “What kind of love” with more emphasis on wah-wah guitars and synthesised vibes. So a far better EP than their debut.
From there it all went wrong for Spirea X. Their third single “Confusion in my soul” was never issued and by the time their debut album “Fireblade Skies” was issued in November 91 they were superceded by the triple whammy of “Nevermind”, “Screamadelica” and “Loveless” and their career never recovered, which is a shame as the LP is actually rather good. Spirea X broke up and the creative nucleus of Beattie and Doyle re-emerged a few years later creating micro-pop classics in Adventures In Stereo.
World of Twist – “Sons Of The Stage” CD single
Another band with huge potential at the start of 1991. It felt like everyone was behind World Of Twist, willing them to have a hit single. It didn’t happen with their debut “The Storm” which was issued towards the end of 1990 but still managed a good placing in the Festive Fifty and an appearance on “The Word” (which was another good place to see the latest music, even if you did have to sit through some inane nonsense to get to the good bits). By the time “Sons of the stage” was issued in the Spring of ’91 it felt like it was a hit single in waiting. I’m sure they were on “The Word” again, and Snub TV again, and it got played on the radio as well – at least on the shows I was listening to.
“Sons of the stage” starts quietly and fades in on organ and congas with some sharp notes of guitar, then bursts into life with a great keyboard led groove aided by synth squiggles and noises. Then Tony Ogden sings about “the beat breaks down so we pick it up” and “the floor’s an ocean and this wave is breaking”…he’s singing about the experience of listening to great music, whether it’s a band or a rave or whatever, it’s a feeling that’s universal – “You’ve gotta get down to the noise and confusion”. The song breaks down and builds up again to a climax of psychedelic guitars and acid squibs before falling into an odd coda of mock-orchestral grandeur and silly seaside noises. Hooks that dig in and stick, powerful music, charismatic singer, great song. Oh and the b-side was great too. A cover of “Life and death” by Sly and the Family Stone, stretched out and funky.
What could go wrong? Why wasn’t it a hit? No idea. Possibly it didn’t help that the CD single I’d bought had a horribly truncated version of the song – the intro barely exists and the outro is quickly faded out. (I had to pick up the seven inch single from Woolworths bargain bin for 50p a few weeks later to get the full version). Maybe it was just too quirky. I don’t know… It should have been a huge hit single. It seems it did sell enough copies to reach the top 40 but due to a quirk in compiling the charts “localised sales” were ignored so all the Mancunian fans’ purchases were cancelled out somewhere. Obviously it influenced some brothers in Burnage who almost called their band Sons Of The Stage before settling for something easier, and they called one of their tours “Ten years of noise and confusion” and one of those brothers has been known to play the song with his ‘new’ band.
But what use is that now? Again World Of Twist were swept away in the late ’91 tidal wave of change, so their debut album “Quality Street” got buried. The album’s mastering was awful, it sounded like it could barely fight its way out of a paper bag too, which didn’t help its chances. Whenever I saw early performances by Pulp when they started to break through around 93 I just thought to myself “It should be World Of Twist up there”. In some parallel universe “Sons of the stage” was number one for six weeks. Sometimes parallel universes are a lot more fun than the real one.
Brighter – “Laurel” CD album
“Oh now come on, you’re cheating here. We’ve all read how this was part of your first package from Sarah Records in early May.”
Yes indeed it was, but this time I was buying it on CD.
“Buying a Sarah Record on CD? What kind of fan were you? Wasn’t it vinyl all the way?”
Well yes, but I’d played this LP to death already, I needed a decent digital version. God, did I love Brighter that May. Lovelorn and sad, quiet and sad, gentle and sad… You get the picture. But I’ve written enough about Sarah Records recently so let’s move on to…
The Sea Urchins – “Please Don’t Cry” 12 inch EP
But….but…it’s a single by The Sea Urchins….. And it’s not on Sarah Records???
Well that was my first thought anyway. I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to leave Sarah. Or maybe Sarah had got fed up with them? Either way, here was a new single by them and would it be as good as “A morning odyssey”, which was one of my favourite singles of all time? After all, the sleeve said it was recorded at Walker Memorial Hall, where their previous single was recorded. (And I’ve just googled it and it’s a large hall and wedding venue in Edgbaston, Birmingham).
“Please don’t cry” is a pleasant enough song, shambling along (check the way the drums hammer away slightly out of time) and with James Roberts’ voice as wayward as ever. Please note – these are not criticisms. “No matter what” is a cover of the Badfinger classic and is kind of pointless, it doesn’t add anything to the song other than a slide guitar solo which either (a) puts a smile on your face or (b) makes you roll on the floor laughing screaming “Make it stop! Make it stop!” (Delete as applicable). It certainly wasn’t the blueprint for the Cloud Minders when we covered the song (that would be the Jellyfish version…) And just when you think the Sea Urchins are throwing it all away, they offer one more song.
“Time is all I’ve seen” is almost as good as “A morning odyssey”! It’s slow and considered, a slightly country-ish feel with slide guitar, delicate piano and acoustic guitars. And there’s a new voice – presumably Patrick Roberts, co-author of the song and James’ brother. And bloody hell he sounds like Gene Clark! The Roberts brothers harmonise around the song, a lovely melody, with impressionistic words and sometimes they give up on words and just “la-la-la” around each other. It’s sad and beautiful and as it turns out it was the last song the Sea Urchins issued so it’s kind of poignant as well. Those Sea Urchins really were good from start to finish, and they had a wealth of unrecorded gems too as the “Live in London” semi-legal CD showed. The band returned as Delta and proceeded to become the unluckiest band in the UK over a decade of great music. And while we’re here, can I just give a mention for James Roberts’ “Everything you know is right” album which truly is a lost classic.
Wire – “The Drill” CD album
Wire developed a habit of issuing their LPs in May which made them ideal birthday listening for me. “A bell is a cup” was purchased from FON Records in Sheffield (birthplace of Warp Records) on my birthday and was the soundtrack to my first year exams in Sheffield in 1988 and is a damn fine album. “It’s beginning to and back again” the following year was kind of ‘live’ and kind of cool, some interesting ideas and extrapolations, and it soundtracked my return to Penarth with my tail between my legs. “Manscape” in 1990 wasn’t quite so good, they were working with new technology which didn’t really gel with the music. It was overlong and had some awful songs but also some wonderful songs (“You hung your lights in the trees” is a very special song) but you can hear Robert Gotobed slowly losing interest as his heartbeat pulse is replaced by drum machines.
So where does “The Drill” fit in? It was an experiment where they tried out the new technology which would lead to “Manscape”. They took the repetitive rhythm from their ’86 song “Drill” and reworked the ‘dugga’ rhythm in a number of ways. So there’s seven reworkings along with a remix of the original and a live version. Dugga overload. If the prospect of nine versions of the same song thrills you then this album’s just for you. Mind you in these days of multiple mixes of the same song it’s not such an unusual idea.
At least the project starts well. “In every city?” is a unique mangling of “Drill” and “12XU” and works brilliantly, with the contrasting vocals of Colin Newman and Graham Lewis working well together. It’s worth it just to hear Lewis intone “I want to drill you”! Then the album goes downhill. “What’s your desire?” swings in on a barrage of sampled ‘dugga’s from Lewis and goes nowhere, insistent but boring. “Arriving/Staying/Going?” may be faster but has a horrible vocal effect, chopping it into unintelligible slices which makes for a frustrating listen. “(A Berlin) Drill” adds some unnecessary synthesier overdubs to the ’86 recording. “Do you drive? (Turn your coat)” is far better, the brisk sequences sounding like Philip Glass played on Casios, and Newman actually gives a committed vocal performance. “Jumping Mint?” is dreary headache inducing noise and the return of the chopped up unintelligble vocal doesn’t help. On the other hand “Did you dugga?” is a delightful piece, taking the melodic overdubs from the “Drill” remix and turning them into something sparse yet pulsing. This actually works. “Where are you now?” takes those elements, slows them down, plays with them and makes an unsettling mood piece. Finally the live “Drill” reminds the listener that there was a four piece band behind all this nonsense, and maybe they should remind themselves of that before diving into a dead end of technology.
The main reason I was (and still am) disappointed with “The Drill” was because I knew what Wire were capable of, together and separately (see previous post on Lewis’ He Said album from ’89). “The Drill” could have been condensed to an EP and maybe would be better that way. For now, it signalled a move into a cul-de-sac for Wire. No wonder Gotobed left.
Electronic – “Electronic” CD album
As the 1980s closed its account, a single was issued which felt like it captured a lot of what was great about that decade into five or so minutes. Electronic were billed as a supergroup in the old traditional Emerson Lake and Palmer sense – artists brought together to make something special. And in this case it was completely appropriate. Bernard Sumner was on a break from New Order who were burnt out after a massive US tour that year. Johnny Marr hadn’t quite found the perfect outlet for his guitar and songwriting skills since the demise of The Smiths two years previously (cue The The fans shouting at me). Add in the Pet Shop Boys – one of the most important synth pop duos still in their imperial phase (have you heard Liza Minelli’s “Results” LP recently? What a class act) – alongside a gorgeous string arrangement from Anne Dudley (so that’s some ZTT New Pop thrown in too) and you’ve got “Getting away with it“, a perfect single. Cool, stylish…and that’s just the sleeve. Was it a one-off? Would more music come from this collaboration? Time would tell.
Of course Sumner and Marr had history together. They had first met in 1984 when Marr had added some decidedly funky guitar licks to Quando Quango’s “Atom Rock” / “Triangle” single which Sumner was producing under his Be-Music alias. Which was my first non-New Order / Joy Division Factory Record purchase that summer and again is one of my favourite singles ever. The success of “Getting away with it” meant they could work together and an album was recorded in 1990 with the Pet Shop Boys on one song and drummer extraordinaire Donald Johnson playing on some songs. Sumner was annoyed that New Order didn’t want to go in a more synthesised direction so did it his way with Marr’s help. Did it work? Oh yes!
A lot of attention at the time regarded Sumner’s rapping on the opening song “Idiot Country” but frankly it’s not that bad. There’s waves of wah-wah guitar, pulsing synths and crisp percussion as a backdrop, and Sumner sounds more engaged than in a long time – there’s anger in his words. He doesn’t like his country and what some people are saying and doing and oddly enough it still sounds true today. (I voted in the European election on Thursday with this song playing on my earphones and it felt appropriate). “Reality” is an early favourite of mine, Sumner now calmer, a host of TR909s beat the retreat, it all sounds very Kraftwerk – especially the end where a synth melody plays with a slight amount of pulse width modulation on it and it sounds like a tribute to “Computer Love”. “Tighten Up” is meatier, lots of tightly strummed chords and chiming guitars, with a tough undercarriage. It’s difficult to know precisely what Sumner is singing about – he is notorious for writing lyrics in the vocal booth so he could be singing about his breakfast or someone he loves. Either way he is impassioned here – the way he stretches out the final word of “There used to be a way but there ain’t no more” into three syllables and notes is remarkable. And Marr adds a great solo, popping his head out to say “Yeah I can still rock out if I want”. “Patience of a saint” marks the return of the Pet Shop Boys to the Electronic project and is another highlight. Neil Tennant and Bernard Sumner trade verses – and sometimes lines – with each other over minimal but lush electronics. It’s a wonderful song full of little glimpses and moments – Tennant’s very British “If I had a faster car I’d drive it BLOODY well”, Sumner’s “What do I care? I’d rather watch drying paint”, the heartbreaking “I’m talking to myself” section, Marr’s delicate acoustic strums. A high point in any career. “Gangster” is one of the few songs here that is dated by its soundset, those orchestral stabs and Italo house piano make it so late 80s early 90s but it’s still great. And what the hell does “All the months of January” mean?
“Soviet” is a brief instrumental which whets the palatte nicely for “Get the message“. This is a wonderful single, crispy crunchy beats, great guitars and Sumner at his pissed off but calm best. I remember him appearing on Simon Mayo’s breakfast show on Radio One to promote the single and Mayo asked him “So what’s the song about?”. Sumner replied along the lines of “Women who spend all your cash” which made Mayo guffaw. The way Sumner sings these words is like he’s quietly arguing his point to someone who won’t listen. And then there’s that guitar solo. All together now – WAAAH WAH WAH WAAAAAH! Genius. I know you’re singing it in your head, aren’t you? Just more evidence that Spring ’91 was a golden era of slightly left field pop singles. “Try all you want” is a purely electronic track, it sounds like a great house track. “Some distant memory” is another beautiful moment. Simple bass, simple chords and drum machines, and Sumner suddenly sounds lost and alone and needing love, and there’s little pizzacato string blips adding to the joy, and is that a tubular bells solo? Well why not? It’s a fantastic song, and Marr’s delicious Spanish guitar solo adds to the magic before it all breaks down to its components again and… What? An oboe solo? Oh my! What a superb idea, such a delightful touch, and the song soars as a result. Absolutely priceless. (The first time I realised that someone else might love this song was when the opening line was written in “Stud Base Alpha”, Dickon Edwards’ pre-Orlando fanzine). “Feel every beat” is a great closer – Johnson’s beats crashing like waves, Sumner rapping about drugs and their effects (“There’s a mirror on the table if you feel you could use it” – alongside assorted sampled snorting sounds), while Marr gets a groove going with more funky guitar and house piano, it’s a bit Soul II Soul but what the hell it all works. And a glorious chorus too. It’s like a distant cousin of A Certain Ratio’s “Be what you wanna be”. And it sort of falls apart at the end, which I find very endearing.
All of these records were played incessantly at the end of May which is why they remind me of that time so much. I can even tell you in what order these records were put onto tape (two tapes actually, a C60 and a C90). The Electronic LP got the most plays as it was the perfect length to get me from my house to the train station to Brunel House in Cardiff for my job at BT. Almost every working day would start with me pounding up seven flights of stairs with the last few minutes of “Feel Every Beat” blasting on my headphones. I can’t imagine climbing seven flights of stairs now. 8-(
So that was my birthday blowout. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. ’91 was a great year, wasn’t it? As for my actual birthday of that year, I remember going to Rabiottis bar on Penarth seafront, waiting for my friends to turn up, getting progressively drunker while waiting so when they did arrive I was rather loud and abusive to them. For which I would like to publicly apologise. Finding Luciano’s was only a week or so away, and so was work and music and Bud. Lots of Bud. Raise a cold one for me, folks!
Next time – not sure at the moment…